Medieval Monday: A Financial Aid Request from the Middle Ages

Lost Letters of Medieval LifeLost Letters of Medieval Life: English Society, 1200-1250 just arrived in the Penn Press warehouse. Translated from Latin by the editors Martha Carlin and David Crouch, this collection of correspondence from thirteenth-century England reveals details about the everyday lives of people from all social stations. Carlin and Crouch selected writings from formularies, collections of model letters, maintained in the British Library and the Bodleian Library. The selections cover everything from real estate transactions to religious life.

Press staff have been looking forward to sharing a few examples from the collection. Since we're on a university campus, we'll start with a letter in the Student Life section. One of the Press work-study assistants was pretty amused by this letter from a University of Oxford student. Student B (who probably didn't even have a job) writes to his mother for money. His request contains the one-two punch of pity and shame, plus the threat of being likened to a "stepmother."

To his dearest mother A., B. her son sends greetings. A mother’s love for her child is bound to be strong and gracious, but if a widow changes her maternal habits she will be crueler than a stepmother. For until now, both in deed and in word, you showed me maternal piety. If you relieved my want through some lavishing of favor, would that your former feelings might endure in you, so that I might find you as I used to find you—and as I shall find you, God willing, because I have never offended nor shall I offend [you] in all my life. You will know, moreover, that I am well at Oxford, and as happy as possible, but I have been bare of clothing for a long time, and I am hungry because I have no money with which I may choose to allay thirst or hunger. And so I pour out pious prayers to Your Maternity, seeking anxiously that, with the right hand of largesse, you raise up your son, who has been lying until now in a lake of misery, in a manner more shameful than honorable. And thus, may you look to his immediate welfare, so that he might visit you in a better state and stay for a longer time. Farewell.

Did this letter actually move medieval mothers to pull their sons from the "lake of misery," or did it produce more smirks than sympathy?

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